Young Jesse O’Cathasaigh lives on a family farm in Arkansas. Here, beneath the sweltering sun and close to the surging Mississippi, he spends his free time exploring and adventuring with his beloved dogs. But these halcyon days cannot last forever. In 1968, the family faces a savage twister that wreaks havoc on the local area. Worse, his parents must continually endure the torment of having a son at war in Vietnam.
As he moves into his teenage years, Jesse becomes an excellent football player but repeatedly clashes with teammate Rick Neal. The racist bully provokes Jesse at every turn and their rivalry culminates in Rick killing Jesse’s dog, Rip. Jesse’s rage is eventually unleashed in a violent attack on Rick. At their wits’ end with their volatile son, his parents send the sixteen-year-old to join The Blue Water School. This unique institution is based on two sailing ships and offers troubled youngsters a chance to turn their lives around.
Arriving in Guadalupe, Jesse is assigned to Lacrosse, where he meets his fellow rookies in their ‘Starboard Eight’ berths. They are a disparate bunch, including anxious Gene, combative Bill and engaging Dan. For Jesse this a new world of relentless work, nautical lore and exotic locations. But before long, the competitive young man is drawn into another rivalry: this one with John Gold, a senior mate who enjoys tormenting the ‘rookies’. However, Jesse also meets Rachel, a confident girl with whom he conducts an on-off romance.
Though physically capable and bright, Jesse is not a strong academic. He is some way behind his compatriots and will need to catch up quickly. One of the Blue Water teachers suggests that he postpone graduation but Jesse is determined to make up ground. After only a few weeks, he begins to grasp the appeal of the sailing life and an additional goal is participation in the prestigious Tall Ships race, which will culminate in New York Harbour in this most significant of years: 1976, the bicentenary.
Genre Literary Fiction